Notes on the folk-lore of the northern counties of England and the borders/Chapter 5
CHARMS AND SPELLS.
For Warts—Ringworm Whooping-cough—Toothache—Use of South-running water—Weak Eyes—Epilepsy—Silver Rings—Sacrifice of Animals—Erysipelas—Ague—St. Vitus’s Dance—Bleeding at the Nose—Goitre—Worms—Cramp—Healing of Wounds—Sympathy—Rheumatism—Foul (in Cattle)— Dean and Chapter—The Minister and the Cow—The Lockerby Penny—The Black Penny of Hume Byers—The Lee Penny—Loch Monar—Burbeck’s Bone—The Adder’s Stone—Irish Stones—Calf hung up in the Chimney—Need-fire—Dartmoor Charms–Knife and Bone—Salt Spell—Passon Harris—Cumbrian Charm—Yorkshire Spell.
N the Borderland, as elsewhere, superstition is apt boldly to intrude into the physician’s province, and proffer relief in every ill that flesh is heir to, by means which he does not condescend to recognise—that is, by charms and spells. Curiously enough, the Wilkie MS. is perfectly silent on this head, but, through the kindness of my friends, I have been enabled to collect a good deal of information respecting these byways to health and strength as practised in the northern counties of England. There is scarcely an ailment for which there is not some remedy at hand; for some a large variety are offered. Thus for warts, a schoolboy’s first trouble, a Northumbrian lad has the choice of several modes of relief. He may take a large black snail, rub the wart well with it, and throw the poor creature against a thorn hedge, confident that as it perishes on one of the twigs the warts will disappear. This remedy has been practised very widely, and still lingers in Hampshire and in Devonshire, where the victim slug or snail may yet be seen impaled on its thorn-bush. Again, he may count the number of warts which torment him, put into a small bag an equal number of pebbles, and drop the bag where four roads meet. Whoever picks up the bag will get the warts. This charm is practised, too, in the West of England. It is sometimes varied by the substitution of a cinder applied to the warts and then tied up in paper. A third plan is to steal a piece of raw meat, rub the warts with it, and throw it away. Southey mentions this little charm in “The Doctor.” Did he learn it among the hills of Westmoreland? A fourth is to make as many knots in a hair as there are warts on the hands, and throw it away. A fifth is to apply eel’s blood. A sixth, to whisper to the wart: “If you do not go away in a week, I’ll burn you off with caustic.” Again, boys take a new pin, cross the warts with it nine times, and fling it over the left shoulder; or they prick the warts with a number of pins and stick the pins into an ash tree, believing that as the pins become embedded in the growing bark the warts will disappear. Or, again, they rub the warts with the skin from lard, and nail up the skin in the sun. This remedy is a very ancient one. Lord Bacon writes: “The taking away of warts by rubbing them with somewhat that afterwards is put to waste and consume, is a common experiment: and I do apprehend it the rather because of mine own experience. I had from my childhood a wart upon one of my fingers; afterwards when I was about sixteen years old, being then at Paris, there grew upon both my hands a number of warts, at the least a hundred, in a month’s space. The English ambassador’s lady, who was a woman far from superstitition, told me one day she would help me away with my warts: whereupon she got a piece of lard with the skin on, and rubbed the warts all over with the fat side; and amongst the rest that wart which I had had from childhood; then she nailed the piece of lard, with the fat towards the sun, upon a post of her chamber window, which was to the south. The success was that within five weeks’ space all the warts went quite away, and that wart which I had so long endured for company. But at the rest I did little marvel, because they came in a short time and might go away in a short time again; but the going away of that which had stayed so long, doth yet stick with me.” But to return to our North-country school-boys. Others cut an apple in two, rub the wart with each part, tie the apple together, and bury it, confident that as the apple decays the warts will disappear. This, too, is done in Devonshire, where they also take a wheat-stalk with as many knots as there are warts on the hand to be dealt with, name over the stalk the person afflicted, and then bury it. As it decays the warts will disappear.
My informant, a clergyman from Devonshire, pleads guilty to having used this charm himself, and by means of it cured his brother of some stubborn warts. He adds: “Gypsies charm away warts. I have known an instance of their curing them in this way. I know, too, a curious case of the kind, substantiated by the master and boys of Marlborough Grammar School. A boy had his hands covered with warts, which disfigured them most unpleasantly. As the lad passed the window of an old woman in the town who dabbled a little in charms and spells, she looked out and called to him to count his warts. He did so, and told her the exact number. ‘By such a day,’ she said, naming a day within the fortnight, ‘they shall all be gone.’ She shut the window and the boy passed on, but by the day indicated every one of the warts, which had troubled him for years, was gone.” Modern Greeks and Armenians, however, deem it unlucky to count warts, and say that if counted they increase in number.
The vicar of Stamfordham, in Northumberland, tells me of an old man in that village who charmed away that obstinate complaint the ringworm. His patients were obliged to come to him before sunrise, when he used to take some earth from his garden and rub the part affected while repeating certain words not recorded. The secret of this charm might be communicated by a man to a woman or vice versâ, but if man told it to man or woman to woman the spell would be broken.
Several cures for whooping-cough are practised in this village, and doubtless in the whole neighbourhood: such as putting a trout’s head into the mouth of the sufferer, and, as they say, letting the trout breathe into the child’s mouth; or making porridge over a stream running from north to south. This last rite was performed not very long ago at a streamlet, near a spring-head, which runs for above fifty yards due south, through a field called Fool or Foul Hoggers, near West Belsay. A girdle was placed over this stream, a fire made upon the girdle, and porridge cooked upon it, and the number of candidates was so great that each patient got but one spoonful as a dose. This story was related to the Rev. J. F. Bigge by one of the recipients; it took place when she was a girl.
The belief in the efficacy of south-running water is apparently of very old date. Mention is made of it in a case of witchcraft recorded in a Book of Depositions from the year 1565 to 1573, extracted in Depositions and other Ecclesiastical Proceedings from the Courts of Durham, which forms vol. xxi. of the publications of the Surtees Society. The alleged witch was one Jennet Pereson, who was supposed to use witchcraft in measuring belts to preserve folks from the fairy, and who took at one time 6d. at another 3d. to heal persons taken with the fairy. Of her a girl named Catherine Fenwicke deposed thus: “She saithe that about two yeres ago, hir cosyn Edward Wyddrington had a child seke, and Jenkyn Pereson wyfe axed of Thomas Blackberd, then this deponent’s mother’s servaunte, how Byngemen (Benjamin) the child did, and bade the said Blackberd comme and speke with hir. And upon the same this deponent went unto him; and the said Pereson wyfe said the child was taken with the farye, and bade her send 2 for south-rowninge (south-running) water, and theis 2 shull not speak by the waye, and that the child shuld be washed in that water, and dip the shirt in the water, and so hang it upon a hedge all that night, and that on the morrow the shirt should be gone and the child shud recover health: but the shirt was not gone, as she said. And this deponent paid to Pereson’s wyfe 3d. for her paynes; otherwais she knoweth not whether she is a wytche or not.”
Another plan consists in tying round the child’s neck a hairy caterpillar in a small bag. As the insect dies the cough vanishes. And another in carrying the patient through the smoke of a limekiln. Children have lately been brought from some distance to the limekilns at Hawkwell near Stamfordham, and passed backwards and forwards. A variation of this treatment prevails in my native city. Last winter a little girl suffering from whooping-cough was taken for several days successively to the gas-works, to breathe what her mother called “the harmonious air” (I imagine she had some notion of ammonia in her head!) and I learnt from her that several other children were in attendance at the time for the same purpose.
Again, the little sufferer may be passed under the belly of an ass or a piebald pony with good hopes of a cure in consequence. This is carried out more fully at Middlesborough, where a friend of mine lately saw a child passed nine times over the back and under the belly of a donkey, and was informed by the parents that they hoped thus to cure it of whooping-cough.
This piece of superstition does not seem on the decline. In September, 1870, a woman was seen passing a child under a donkey in order to cure it of this complaint on the Sandhill, Newcastle-on-Tyne. She did it three times consecutively. In Worcestershire it is requisite to place the child upon the cross on the donkey’s back, and lead the animal nine times round a signpost. Something like this is done in Sussex, where in addition a silk bag containing hair cut from the cross on the donkey’s back is hung round the child’s neck. In the instance related to me the hair was sewn up in bags by the clergyman’s wife, who also lent the donkey for two sick children to ride on. The mention of a piebald pony is curious, for Abp. Whately observes in his Miscellaneous Remains (p. 273), that a man riding on such a horse is supposed, in virtue of his steed, to have the power of prescribing with success for the whooping-cough, and is promptly obeyed; so that when such a person once said to the inquiring parents, “Tie a rope round the child’s neck,” the rope was tied without the least hesitation.
Of this belief a contributor from Sussex writes, “A man who owned a piebald horse lived a few years ago at Petworth, and he never rode out on it without being accosted by some mother of a family and asked what was the best cure for whooping-cough. Sometimes he would reply, “Ale and butter,” sometimes “honey and vinegar;” anything, in short, that occurred to him. But, however strange the advice might be, it was implicitly followed; “and,” said Mrs. Cooper, my informant, “the result has always been that the sick children were cured.” The same thing is believed in Gloucestershire. And in Suffolk rum and milk were freely administered to a little sufferer by his mother on the same authority.
In the Midland Counties the patient must go about till he finds a married couple whose names are Joseph and Mary, and must then ask them what will cure the cough. Whatever they prescribe will be efficacious. A Staffordshire remedy is to hang an empty glass bottle up the chimney.
From the late Dr. Johnson I learnt of another remedy current in Sunderland: the crown of the head is shaved and the hair hung upon a bush or tree, in firm belief that the birds carrying it away to their nests will carry away the cough along with it. A similar notion lies at the root of a mode of cure practised in Northamptonshire and Devonshire alike. Put a hair of the patient’s head between two slices of buttered bread and give it to a dog. The dog will get the cough and the patient lose it, as surely as scarlet fever is transferred from a human being to an ass by mixing some of the hair of the former with the ass’s fodder. Another Devonian remedy is to place a smooth mullein leaf under the heel of the left foot.
A Yorkshire lady kindly communicates to me another mode of cure which was practised upon herself and her brother in their childhood, their residence being in the neighbourhood of York. It consisted in eating while fasting, and early in the morning, unleavened bread made by a fasting virgin. They had to eat it in silence. A Dorsetshire remedy for the same complaint is, she informs me, to seat the patient on a donkey with its face towards its tail, and give him a roast mouse to eat. It is hardly necessary to say that he must not know what he is eating. The same practice has prevailed in Leicestershire and Northamptonshire. A Sussex remedy, said to be very efficacious, is to hang round the patient’s neck the excrescence often found upon the briar-rose, and locally called Robin redbreast’s cushion.
Another mode of cure for this scourge of childhood prevails in the North of Ireland. A lady residing in the county of Derry, my own near relation, tells me that a short time ago her servants summoned her out of doors to see a stranger who was peering about in the yard but would not speak to any of them. She went and found a respectable middle-aged woman, apparently a farmer’s wife, who, seeing her to be the mistress of the house, eagerly went up and prayed her to save her child. In answer to the lady’s inquiries the woman said, “My child is dying of whooping-cough; the doctors can do nothing more, so I went to a skilled man, and he told me to fill a small bottle with milk and take it to a house I had never visited before. I must cross the water three times to get to it, and must speak no word by the way till I see the master or the master’s wife of this strange house. Then I must tell my tale and ask whether they keep a ferret. If they do I must pour the milk in a saucer, see the ferret drink half of it, return the other half into the bottle, take it home and give it to the child. He will drink it and be cured at once. Now I see you have ferrets, let me have one at once. I have been out so many days and have not been able to find a strange house where they kept them.” My friend, as kindly as she could, endeavoured to disabuse the poor woman’s mind of this strange superstition, but a belief in it was deeply rooted in her mind.
Since I received this narration I find that something similar holds its ground in my own county. The following instance was communicated to me by the late Rev. J. W. Hick, of Byer’s Green: “A boy came into my kitchen the other day with a basin containing a gill of new milk, saying his mother hoped I would let my son’s white ferret drink half of it, and then he would take the other half home to the bairn to cure its cough. I found the boy had been getting milk, in the village for some days, and thus giving our ferret half of it.”
For toothache there is remedy also. The inhabitants of Stamfordham, the Northumbrian village named already, have been accustomed to walk to Winter’s Gibbet, on Elsdon Moor, some ten or twelve miles off, for a splinter of the wood to cure toothache, as those of Durham and its neighbourhood to “Andrew Miles’s Stob,” i. e. the gibbet near Ferry Hill, on which the wretched boy of that name was executed for the murder of his master’s three little children A.D. 1683. Our county historian, Mr. Surtees, relates that a portion of the gibbet still remains, but is in a fair way to be carried off piecemeal for use as a charm against ague and toothache. How in either case the wood was to be applied we are not told, but the remedy sounds almost as ghastly as that resorted to for the same purpose at Tavistock in Devonshire—biting a tooth out of a skull in the churchyard, and keeping it always in the pocket. There is a ferocious character, too, about the Staffordshire mode of cure. It consists in carrying about a paw cut off from a live mole. A mole catcher stated to Mr. B—— S—— that he had been often asked for moles’ paws for this purpose.
Nor is weakness of the eyes uncared for. Where the teasle is grown for use in the manufacture of broad-cloth, a remedy for weak eyes is found in the water which collects in the hollow cups of that plant. Again, I have myself seen and handled a talisman from the Tweedside, which, in the hands of an old witch-woman, was deemed powerful to heal them. It was called a lammer-bead, lammer being the Scotch for amber, from the French “l’ambre;” and wondrous were the cures it wrought, in the witch-woman’s hands, when drawn over inflamed eyes or sprained limbs. It is apparently of amber, and probably was dug out of an ancient British grave or barrow. The old woman has recently died, but the bead is cherished in her family as an heirloom.
Of epilepsy the Rev. George Ornsby writes: “I remember, when a boy, application being made to my father for a halfcrown, to be offered by him the next time he went to Holy Communion at Lanchester church, and asked for again on behalf of the applicant, in order that it might be made into a ring to be worn by an epileptic patient.” In Yorkshire the charm is rather different. The ring must be made of a halfcrown from the Offertory collection, but thirty pence are tendered for it, collected from as many different persons. Not ten years ago, the Vicar of Danby, near Whitby, was asked for a halfcrown after Holy Communion, by a farmer, one of his most respectable parishioners, the thirty pence being prepared in exchange. I may, perhaps, fitly add here, that a belief in the efficacy of the sacred elements in the Eucharist, for the cure of bodily disease, is widely spread throughout the North. A clergyman has informed me that he knows of one element having been secreted for this purpose, and that he has found it necessary to watch persons who appeared to have such an intention.
Certain superstitious beliefs are undoubtedly very widely spread. Silver rings made from Offertory money are still worn by epileptic patients in the Forest of Dean, and, with some variation, the charm is in use in Devonshire. A relation of mine in that county writes of it thus: “Twenty years ago, soon after we settled in this place, we were surprised by a visit from a farmer, a respectable-looking man, from Ilsington, a village about six miles off. With a little hesitation he introduced himself, and told us that his son had long been a sufferer from the falling sickness, that medical care had utterly failed, and, as a last resource, he had been advised to collect seven sixpences from seven maidens in seven different parishes, and have them melted down into a ring for the lad to wear. “I can’t tell you,” he went on, “how many miles I have travelled on this business, for the villages hereabouts are far apart. So hearing a family of ladies had settled here, I thought I would come up the hill to see if one among them had a heart kind enough to help my poor Bill.” The appeal was irresistible; the sixpence was given, and the simple-hearted countryman went away full of gratitude, but not daring to utter it for fear of breaking the spell. Some such superstition has doubtless prevailed, more or less, at some period through the length and breadth of England. My kind contributor, Mrs. Lambert, has forwarded to me the following extract from a curious old journal and account-book, kept by a Lincolnshire gentleman, the uncle of her grandfather, in the year 1754:—
A poor woman at Barton, who had fits, towards buying a silver ring, 1d.
Very different is the treatment of epilepsy in the North of Scotland, as made known to us by Dr. Mitchell, in his deeply interesting paper on the Superstitions of the North-west Highlands and Islands of Scotland. For a cure of this disease, he informs us that a literal downright sacrifice to a nameless but secretly acknowledged power is practised there: “On the spot where the epileptic first falls, a black cock is buried alive, along with a lock of the patient’s hair and some parings of his nails. I have seen at least three epileptic idiots for whom this is said to have
been done. A woman who assisted at such a sacrifice minutely described to me the order of procedure.” According to Dr. Mitchell this sacrifice dates from remote antiquity, and is very widely spread. The cock, a creature consecrated to Apollo, who in classic mythology was in some measure connected with the healing art, was in Egypt sacrificed to Osiris, whom we may regard as the same divinity under another title. This bird has, throughout the East, been sacrificed during the prevalence of infectious disease, and in Algeria it is still drowned in a sacred well to cure epilepsy and madness. As to the mention of the patient’s hair and nails, it is remarkable that the savages of the South Sea Islands at the present day perform most of their cures and incantations with the use of the hair, nails, and fragments left from the meals of the persons to be operated upon.
The purely Celtic superstitions have, indeed, an unmistakably heathen character about them which is almost appalling. Our author transcribes, from the old records of the Presbytery of Dingwall, extracts which show that down to A.D. 1678 bulls were sacrificed on August 25 at the little island of Innis Maree, in Loch Maree, and milk poured forth upon the hills as a libation. Several members of the Mackenzie family were cited that year before the Presbytery, “for sacrificing a bull in an heathenish manner, in the island of Saint Rufus, commonly called Ellan Moury, in Lochew, for the recovery of the health of Cirstane Mackenzie, who was formerly sick and valetudinarie,” and it appears that the rite was one frequently performed. The 25th of August is the feast day of St. Malruba, now called Mourie or Maree, the patron saint of the district; but the people of the place often call him the god Mourie, which plainly shows that the worship formerly paid to some local Celtic divinity has been transferred to the saint. When it finally disappeared we are not informed, but a similar observance has been handed on to our own day in the county of Moray. Not fifteen, years ago, a herd of cattle in that county being attacked with murrain, one of them was sacrificed by burying alive, as a propitiatory offering for the rest; and I am informed by Professor Marecco that a live ox was burned near Haltwhistle, in Northumberland, only twenty years ago, with the same intent. A similar observance has also lingered on among the Celtic population of Cornwall almost, if not quite, to the present day. In Hunt’s Romances and Drolls of the West of England, 1st series (page 237), we read: “There can be no doubt but that a belief prevailed until a very recent period, amongst the small farmers in the districts remote from towns in Cornwall, that a living sacrifice appeased the wrath of God. This sacrifice must be by fire; and I have heard it argued that the Bible gave them warranty for this belief.” He cites a well-authenticated instance of such a sacrifice in 1800, and adds: “While correcting these sheets I am informed of two recent instances of this superstition. One of them was the sacrifice of a calf by a farmer near Portreath, for the purpose of removing a disease which had long followed his horses and his cows. The other was the burning of a living lamb, to save, as the farmer said, ‘his flocks from spells which had been cast on ‘em.’ ”
The same ferocious character may be traced in the remedy for erysipelas, lately practised in the parish of Lochcarron, in the North-west Highlands: it consists in cutting off one-half of the ear of a cat, and letting the blood drop on the part affected.
Of a different character is the following mode of healing practised in the year 1870 in a rural district in ———. I give it in the words of the Vicar of K——: “A respectable farmer’s wife told me to-day that she was effectually charming away erysipelas from the foot of her father, a paralysed old man. On my asking the nature of the charm, she allowed herself, after some hesitation, to confide to me the following mystic words: adding (1) ‘that they would be powerless, unless communicated by a man to a woman, or vice versá; and (2) that the spell must be administered before bedtime, or immediately on rising.’ The words are verbatim as I copied them:
After this, who shall congratulate himself on the decay of superstition as a thing of the past?
Ague is a disease which has always been deemed peculiarly open to the influence of charms. It is said in Devonshire that you may give it to your neighbour, by burying under his threshold a bag containing the parings of a dead man’s nails, and some of the hairs of his head; your neighbour will be afflicted with ague till the bag is removed. In Somersetshire and the adjoining counties, the patient shuts a large black spider into a box, and leaves it to perish; in Flanders he imprisons it between the two halves of a walnut-shell, and wears it round his neck; in Ireland he swallows it alive. The Sussex peasant imprisons a caterpillar, and carries it about in his pocket, confident that as the poor insect wastes away the ague-fits will diminish in violence. He has the alternative of wearing tansy leaves in his shoes, or eating sage leaves, fasting for nine mornings consecutively. Flemish Folk-Lore enjoins any one who has the ague to go early in the morning to an old willow, make three knots in one of its branches, and say “Good morrow, Old One; I give thee the cold; good morrow, Old One.” Compare with this a mode of cure practised in Lincolnshire. It was thus described by one who had suffered from the disease, and tried the remedy in her young days. She was an old woman when her clergyman, the Rev. George Ornsby, wrote it down in her own words. I may add that she has but recently died:
“When I wur a young lass, about eighteen years auld, or thereabouts, I were living sarvant wi’ a farmer down i’ Marshland (borders of Lincolnshire). While I were there I were sorely ’tacked wi’ t’ague, and sorely I shakked wi’ it. Howsomever, I got mysen cured, and I’ll tell ye how it were. They were on mawing, and I hed to tak t’dinner t’it men ’at were mawing i’ t’ field. Sae I went wi’ t’ dinner, and ane o’ t’ men were an auld man, and while he were sitting o’ t’ grass eating him dinner, I were stood looking at him, and talking t’him, and shakking all t’ time. ‘Young woman,’ says he, ‘ye’ve gotten t’ shakking (a name they commonly give to the ague) very bad.’ ‘Ay,’ says I, ‘I have that.’ ‘Wad ye like to be shot on’t?’ says he. ‘Ay, that wud I,’ says I. ‘Why then,’ says he, ‘thou mun do as I tell thee. Dost thou see yon espin-tree t’other side o’ the field, ther?” ‘Ay, dif I,’ says I. ‘Why then, ma lass, thou mun gang along to where thou sees ma coat lying yonder, and thou’lt fin’ a knife in ma pocket, and thou mun tak t’ knife and cut off a long lock o’ thy heer (and lang and black ma heer were then, ye may believe me); and then thou mun gan to t’ espin-tree, and thou mun tak a greet pin and wrap thy heer around it, and thou mun pin it t’it bark o’ t’ espin-tree; and while thou’st daeing it thou mun say, ‘Espin-tree, espin-tree, I prithee to shak an shiver insted o’ me.’ An it’ll come to pass ’at thou’lt niver hae t’ shakking more, if thou nobbut gans straight home, and niver speaks to naebody till thou gets theer.’ Sae I did as he tell’t me, but if ye believe me I were sorely flayed; but howsomever t’auld man cured me that way, and I’ve niver had t’ shakking fra that day to this.”
I suppose that the ceaseless trembling of the aspen-leaves, even when all around is still, is suggestive of mystery; for certain it is that this tree comes forward a good deal in the Folk-Lore of different nations. The Bretons explain the phenomenon by averring that the cross was made from its wood, and that the trembling marks the shuddering of sympathetic horror. The Germans have a theory of their own, embodied in a little poem, which may be thus translated:—
Once, as our Saviour walked with men below,
Only the aspen stands erect and free,
If the Cross was thought to be made of aspen-wood, the Crown of Thorns was in the Middle Ages said to have been formed of white-thorn branches, and the white-thorn was reverenced accordingly. Mr. Kelly, however, affirms that this tree possessed a sacred character in ancient heathen days, as having sprung from the lightning, and being, in consequence, scatheless in storms. It was used for marriage torches among the Romans, and wishing-rods were made from it in Germany.
But to return. The Rev. J. Barnby informs me of the following cure for St. Vitus’s Dance, the patient having been daughter to his parish clerk, in a Yorkshire village. Medical aid having failed, the parents deemed the girl bewitched, and would not be dissuaded from consulting a wise man, who lived at or near Ripon, thirty miles off. The wise man told them that if the disease came from an evil eye, an evil wish, or an evil prayer, he could remove it, but if by the direct visitation of God he could not. Accordingly he tried the remedies for the first and second causes, but in vain. He then resorted to the proper measures for the third cause, which consisted chiefly in prayers; and the parents aver that at the very time of his praying the girl began to amend, she being ignorant meanwhile of what was going on. The wise man gave her a charm, to wear as a preservative against the person who had bewitched her, and the recovery was perfect.
The following curious history was communicated to me by the Rev. J. F. Bigge. A farmer’s wife who lived at Belsay-deanhome, towards the south-west of Northumberland, was suddenly seized with a violent bleeding at the nose; and the usual modes of stopping it having been tried in vain, one of the neighbours, who had clustered round her, said, “Gan away to Michael W——, at Black Heddon, and fetch him quick. He’ll ken o’ summat to do her good.” Now, this Michael W—— was and is esteemed a wizard. The husband went off at once for the wizard, who came with him homewards across the Belsay burn, but stopped at that point, muttered some words, and saying, “She’ll be well now,” turned and went straight home. However, when the farmer got back, he found his wife as bad as ever; so turning round he retraced his steps to Michael’s door, and told him the state of affairs. “It’s strange she’s no better,” said Michael; “but, eh! I’ve forgotten; there’s another burn which runs under the road near the lodge.” Back he went, crossed over that burn, repeated his charm, and confidently stated that the patient was better. The farmer went home and found that the bleeding had stopped.
Goitre, the scourge of the Swiss valleys, is sometimes found in our country, and superstition offers a remedy for it, though a revolting one. The late Rev. J. W. Hick, Incumbent of Byer’s Green, informed me that on asking a parishioner thus afflicted whether she had tried any measures for curing it, she answered: “No, I have not, though I have been a sufferer eleven years. But a very respectable man told me to-day that it would pass away if I rubbed a dead child’s hand nine times across the lump. I’ve not much faith in it myself, but I’ve just tried it.” Somewhat similar measures were resorted to by another sufferer not many years ago. The body of a suicide who had hanged himself in Hesilden-dene, not far from Hartlepool, was laid in an out-house, awaiting the coroner’s inquest. The wife of a pitman at Castle Eden Colliery, suffering from a wen in the neck, according to advice given her by a “wise woman,” went alone and lay all night in the outhouse, with the hand of the corpse on her wen. She had been assured that the hand of a suicide was an infallible cure. The shock to the nervous system from that terrible night was so great that she did not rally for some months, and eventually she died from the wen. This happened about the year 1853, under the cognisance of my informant, the Rev. Canon Tristram. This belief extended, not many years back, as far south as Sussex. “Some five-and-twenty years ago,” writes the Sussex lady, to whom I am so much indebted, “there stood a gibbet within sight of the high road that wound up Beeding Hill, our nearest way to Brighton. . . . . Among my nurse’s fearful stories about it was one relating to the curing of a wen by the touch of the dead murderer’s hand, and she described most graphically the whole frightful scene: how the patient was taken under the gallows in a cart, and was held up in order that she might reach the dead hand, and how she passed it three times over the wen and returned home cured. This practice has happily become extinct with the destruction of the gibbet; but the remedy of a dead hand is still sometimes resorted to. Not very long ago, in the neighbouring village of Storrington, a young woman afflicted with goitre was taken by her friends to the side of an open coffin in order that the hand of the corpse might touch it thrice.” It may be observed that they say in North Germany that tetters and warts disappear if touched by the hand of a corpse.
Another friend, the Rev. J. Cundill, tells me how, while he was fishing a short time ago in Stainsby Beck, in Cleveland, a peasant came along the stream in search of a “wick” (anglicè, quick or live) trout, to lay on the stomach of one of his children who was much troubled with worms, a trout so applied being a certain cure for that complaint. A different mode of treatment was made known to me, in the autumn of 1863, by the fireside of my landlady’s kitchen at Sprouston, by the Tweedside, after a long day’s fishing. I was informed that water in which earthworms had been boiled was an infallible remedy in such a case. I ventured to demur to its efficacy, on which the old woman broke out, “Bless me, Mr. Henderson! will ye no believe that? Why, wasn’t Jeanie Wright fair brought back frae the grave when she was as gude as dead? A’ the doctors had gi’en her up, but there were them about her that wudna knuckle down without ane mair attempt. So they houkit a pint o’ worms, and biled them in fresh water, and gaed her the broo to drink. Frae that hour she began to mend, an’ now she’s as stout a woman as ony, an’ ye may see her for yersell an ye gan to the west end o’ the town, for there she’s livin’ yet.”
For cramp our Durham remedy is to garter the left leg below the knee. An eel’s skin worn about the naked leg is deemed a preventive too, especially by schoolboys. The eel’s skin comes to light again in Northumberland. A sprained limb is bound up with it after the “stamp-strainer” has stamped upon it with his foot. This stamp-straining is practised in that county, and is said to have great efficacy. When the first pang is over, they declare that the operation is painless. The Rev. J. F. Bigge has noted down how one W. R., of Belsay Lake House, who was skilled in the art, stamped for a sprain the arm of J. R., and cured her.
But to return to the subject of cramp. Some people lay their shoes across to avert it; others wear a tortoiseshell ring; others place a piece of brimstone in their beds. Coleridge, in his Table-Talk, records the approved mode of procedure in Christ’s Hospital, which he believed had been in use in the school since its foundation in the reign of Edward VI. A boy when attacked by a fit of cramp would get out of bed, stand firmly on the leg affected, and make the sign of the cross over it, thrice repeating this formula:
The devil is tying a knot in my leg,
Archbishop Whately deems it unworthy of observation that the “cramp-bone” of a leg of mutton, i. e. the patella or knee-cap, has been in repute as a preservative against this complaint. I learn from the Rev. George Ornsby that rings or handles from coffins, made up and worn as finger-rings, are deemed efficacious in the West Riding. So they are in Cleveland. An old watchmaker at Stokesley, Robert Stevenson by name, used to cure “scores of people” that way. But he confided to his choice friends that he never really made up the coffin-tyre they brought him: he took it from them, but it was less trouble to give them rings which he had by him.
This may, perhaps, be a not unsuitable place for introducing an instance of Devonshire superstition, so peculiar that it seems worthy of record. It was related to my fellow-worker by her friend the late Dr. Walker, of Teignmouth, a physician of some local celebrity. Within the last twenty years he had under his care a poor woman of that place, who was suffering from an extensive sore on the breast. When he visited her one day he was surprised to find the entire surface of the wound strewn over with a gritty substance, and a good deal of inflammation set up in consequence. In some displeasure he asked what they had been putting on, but for a long time he could get no answer beyond “Nothing at all, Sir.” The people about were sullen, but the doctor was peremptory; and at last the woman’s husband, rolling a mass of stone from under the bed, muttered, in genuine Devonshire phrase, “Nothing but Peter’s stone, and here he is!” On further inquiry it appeared that, incited by the neighbours, who had declared his wife was not getting well as she should, the poor fellow had walked by night from Teignmouth to Exeter, had flung stones against the figures on the west front of the cathedral (which is called St. Peter’s by the common people), had succeeded at last in bringing down the arm of one of them, and had carried it home in triumph. Part of this relic had been pulverised, mixed with lard, and applied to the sore. I have never met with another instance of the kind, but doubtless it is not a solitary one. If the practice was ever general, we need not lay to the charge of Oliver Cromwell’s army all the dilapidation of the glorious west front of Exeter Cathedral.
The treatment of surgical cases in the North by no means corresponds to that pursued by the faculty. When a Northumbrian reaper is cut by his sickle, it is not uncommon to clean and polish the sickle. Lately, in the village of Stamfordham, a boy hurt his hand with a rusty nail. The nail was immediately taken to a blacksmith to file off the rust, and was afterwards carefully rubbed every day, before sunrise and after sunset, for a certain time; and thus the injured hand was perfectly healed.
How well this mode of treatment corresponds with that pursued by the Ladye of Buccleugh towards the wounded mosstrooper, William of Deloraine, as recounted by the Last Minstrel;
She drew the splinter from the wound,
Probably Sir Walter Scott borrowed it as much from Border practice as from Border records. It seems in early days to have been very prevalent. Lord Bacon avers, “It is constantly received and avouched that the anointing of the weapon that maketh the wound will heal the wound itself,” Nat. Hist. cent. x. 998. And the “sympathetic powder,” which Sir Kenelm Digby prepared “after the Eastern method,” was applied by him to the bandages taken from the patient’s wound, not to the patient himself. This curious mode of treatment still lingers here and there. Not long ago it was practised on a hayfork in the neighbourhood of Winchester, and I lately heard a reference to it in Devonshire. A young relation of mine, while riding in the green lanes of that county, lamed his pony by its treading on a nail. He took the poor creature to the village blacksmith, who immediately asked for the nail, and, finding it had been left in the road, said, as he shook his head, “Ah, Sir, if you had picked it up and wiped it, and kept it warm and dry in your pocket, there’d have been a better chance for the pony, poor thing!”
The Rev. Hugh Taylor has kindly communicated to me the following story in illustration of this belief: “A cousin of mine, when a boy, ran a pitchfork into his foot. As he was in much pain, in the absence of a surgeon, an old bone-setter named Harry Stephenson was sent for. Old Harry applied some lotion, consisting, as he said, of ‘three consarns,’ and sent for the pitchfork. He cut a little hair exactly from the back of his patient’s head, and very carefully wiped the pitchfork with it; then, instructing him to place the hair under his pillow, he took the fork home and hung it up behind the door. Whether the treatment of the wound or the pitchfork deserve the credit, the patient was certainly quite well in the morning.” Again, my Sussex informant writes: “Several instances of this old superstitious remedy have come under my observation, but the most remarkable one occurred in the house of an acquaintance, one of whose men had fallen down upon a sword-stick, and inflicted an injury on his back which confined him to his bed for several days. During the whole of this time the sword-stick was hung up at his bed’s head, and polished night and day at stated intervals by a female hand. It was also anxiously examined lest a single spot of rust should be found on it, since that would have foretold the death of the wounded man.”
The following communication from Mr. G. M. Tweddell tells of the same belief in Yorkshire: “Some years ago, a relation of mine was crossing the moors from Whitby to his home at Stokesley, when he heard a woman’s voice calling out loudly, ‘Canny man, canny man, d’ye come frae Stousley?’ On his replying that he did, she begged him to take a harrow-tooth to the wise man of that place, as her husband had been injured by it, and she wished the wise man to polish and charm it. He took the harrow-tooth and placed it in his pocket, but, truth to tell, as soon as she was out of sight, he flung it away among the heather. However, when, some time after, he passed that way again, the poor woman recognised him and thanked him heartily for doing her errand, saying that her husband had mended from the day the wise man got the bit of iron.”
It is curious to compare with these narrations the mode of procedure prescribed in North Germany. If a person has wounded himself, let him cut, in an upward direction, a piece from a branch of a fruit-tree, and apply it to the recent wound so that the blood may adhere to it, and then lay it in some part of the house where it is quite dark, when the bleeding will cease. Or, when a limb has been amputated, the charmer takes a twig from a broom, and presses the wound together with it, wraps it in the bloody linen, and lays it in a dry place, saying,—
The wounds of our Lord Christ
My friend the late Canon Humble told me of a strange Irish belief which he learnt from a poor woman whom he visited in sickness, that a fox’s tongue was a specific for extracting obstinate thorns. “A neighbour of hers, she said, broke a very long thorn into the ancle joint. The doctor tried poultices and everything he could think of without result. She sent her fox’s tongue. It was applied at night, and in the morning the thorn was found lying beside it, having come out in the night. The woman added that it was so valuable that in the long run she lost it through the cupidity of her neighbours.”
The sympathy assumed between the cause of an injury and the victim is in Durham held strongly to exist between anyone bitten by a dog and the animal that inflicted the bite. An inhabitant of that city recently informed me, that, having been bitten in the leg by a savage dog about a month before, he took the usual precautions to prevent ultimate injury, but without satisfying his friends, more than twenty of whom had seriously remonstrated with him for not having the dog killed. This alone, they said, would insure his safety; otherwise, should the dog hereafter go mad, even years hence, he would immediately be attacked with hydrophobia. These persons were of the middle class, and many of them had received a good education. The same belief, I find, prevails throughout Yorkshire.
It is with reluctance that I approach the next anecdote, for, in truth, I can never recall it without pain; it tells the sad effects of local treatment of rheumatism. About twenty years have passed, since, after a long day’s angling in the College (a small river which winds round the northern side of the Cheviot), I entered the thatched cottage of a shepherd, which stood near the confluence of that stream with the Bowmont. The man and his wife bade me welcome, after the kindly hospitable fashion of that district. I grew interested in their conversation, and promised to visit them again when I came next into their neighbourhood. I did so during the following spring, but what was my grief at finding the man, who had seemed to me a model of strength, now a complete wreck; he was lying on a long settle by the fire side, wrapped in blankets. The poor woman, on seeing me, burst into tears, and it was some time before her suffering husband could tell me his tale of too-confiding simplicity.
In the latter part of the preceding autumn, he had caught cold while tending his flock on the mountain side; acute rheumatism had followed; he suffered a good deal, and, being of a sanguine temperament, chafed at the slow but safe steps adopted by the surgeon of the district. As week after week passed by with little amendment, constant pain and impending poverty induced him at last, in an evil hour, to give heed to his neighbours’ advice, and resort to “the wise man who lived far over the hills.” The wise man declared that the case was desperate, and demanded desperate remedies. As the first step, he directed that the sufferer should be wrapped in a blanket and laid in the sharp running stream which flowed a few yards from the cottage. This was done with full faith, though it was the depth of winter. Never shall I forget the poor victim as he turned his dying eyes on me and said, “Oh, Sir, I laid there twenty minutes, but could endure it no longer; and I just said, ‘Lift me out I’m dead.’ They took me out, and I’ve laid on this settle ever since.” A few days more, and the poor fellow had passed (as we humbly trust) to a better life, a sacrifice to one of the most cruel and heartless impostures I ever heard of. Had not death intervened, who can tell what further tortures might not have been in store for him at the hands of this ignorant and presuming monster?
The late Canon Humble communicated to me a story respecting the treatment of rheumatism in Dundee, widely different in its nature and results. A clergyman went to see an old woman of that place, who had not moved off her chair for years in consequence of severe rheumatism, which had settled in the knee. As is common among the poor, she would make the minister feel the painful swelling. I should add that he is a man of great muscular power, and not always aware of the force with which he uses it. He laid his hand on the part affected, and soon left the room to visit at some other tenements in the same row. Before he had gone his rounds in that quarter, he heard some one call him, and turning round, beheld his old friend up and about, loudly proclaiming that the priest’s touch had cured her. Certain it is, she has walked ever since.
Different again is the Sussex remedy of placing the bellows in the sufferer’s chair that he may lean against them and the rheumatics be charmed away.
Through the kindness of the Rev. T. H. Wilkinson, vicar of Moulsham, Chelmsford, I have been permitted to enrich this volume by extracts from a MS. book of old sayings and customs, jotted down by his father, once an inhabitant of Durham. In it is mentioned a very singular specific, which it seems was formerly held in high repute in that city. The remnants of every medicine bottle in the house, the more the better, were poured together, well shaken, and a spoonful of the mixture administered to a patient, of whatever nature his complaint might be. This strange remedy, it appears, was called “Dean and Chapter.”
Passing by, for the present, different modes of cure for persons who have been bewitched, we will turn to the diseases of animals, for local superstition does not deem these beneath their notice. A gentleman farmer in the West Riding of Yorkshire, having some cattle affected by the foul or fellen (my informant, the Rev. George Ornsby, forgets which), and having heard that an old man in the neighbourhood, who had long practised farriery, was famous for curing the disease, went to consult him. The case was duly laid before the old man, who replied, with the utmost gravity, that he had cured “a many,” and that, as he had given up practice, he did not mind if he told him his secret. His directions were few and simple; the owner of the horse was to go at midnight into his orchard and grave a turf at the foot of the largest apple-tree therein, and then hang it carefully on the topmost bough of the tree, all in silence and alone. If this was duly performed, as the turf muddered away so would the disease gradually leave the animal. The old farrier added that he had never known this mode of cure to fail.
This remedy is also mentioned in the late Mr. Denham’s Folk-Lore of the North of England, with one addition—the turf cut must be one on which the beast has trodden with its diseased foot. Many people, he says, use no other remedy for the foul, looking upon this as an infallible cure.
Another tale from Northumberland must be given in the very words in which I received it from the Rev. J. F. Bigge, only premising that a poor woman had a cow, and that the cow was taken ill. The woman described its recovery as follows: “I was advised, ye ken, to gan to the minister, ye ken, and I thought he might do something for her, ye ken; so a gaes to the minister, ye ken, and a sees him about her. ‘Well, Sir,’ says I, ‘the coo’s bad; cuddn’t ye come and make a prayer o’er her like?’ ‘Well, Janet,’ says he, ‘I’ll come.’ And come he did, ye ken, and laid his hand on her shoulder, ye ken, and said, ‘If ye live ye live, and if ye dee ye dee.’ Weel, ye ken, she mended fra that hour. Next year who but the minister should be ta’en ill, and I thought I wud just gan and see the auld minister—it was but friendly, ye ken. I fund him in bed, and I gans up till him, and lays my hand on his shoulder, and I says, ‘If ye live ye live, and if ye dee ye dee.’ So he burst out a-laughing, ye ken, and his throat got better fra that moment, ye ken.” It would appear that the poor man was suffering from quinsy, which broke from the effects of laughing.
At Lockerby, in Dumfriesshire, is still preserved a piece of silver called the Lockerby Penny, which is thus used against madness in cattle. It is put in a cleft stick, and a well is stirred round with it, after which the water is bottled off and given to any animal so affected. A few years ago, in a Northumbrian farm, a dog bit an ass, and the ass bit a cow; the penny was sent for, and a deposit of 50l. actually left till it was restored. The dog was shot, the cuddy died, but the cow was saved through the miraculous virtue of the charm. On the death of the man who thus borrowed the penny, several bottles of water were found among his effects, stored in a cupboard, arid labelled “Lockerby Water.”
The Lockerby Penny is not, however, without a rival on the Borders. From time out of mind, the family of T. of Hume-byers have possessed a charm called the “Black Penny;” it is said to be somewhat larger than a penny, and is probably a Roman coin or medal. When any cattle are afflicted with madness, the Black Penny is dipped in a well the water of which runs towards the south (this is indispensable); sufficient water is then drawn and given to the animals affected. Popular belief still formally upholds the value of this remedy; but alas! it is lost to the world. A friend of mine informs me that half a generation back the Hume-byers Penny was borrowed by some persons residing in the neighbourhood of Morpeth, and never returned.
Again, there is the Lee Penny, of Saracen origin, which Sir Walter Scott was pleased to identify with his Talisman. As he informs us in a note to the romance of that name, a complaint was brought early in the seventeenth century before a kirk synod, against Sir James Lockhart, of Lee, for curing “deseasit cattle” by the use of this stone. But the Assembly considered “that in nature thair are many things seen to work strange effects,” so they only admonished the Laird of Lee, in the using of the said stone, “to take heid that it be usit hereafter with the least scandle that possibly may be.” One of my friends, a descendant of the very Sir Simon Lockhart, of Lee, who accompanied James, the good Lord Douglas, to the Holy Land with the heart of Robert Bruce, and who brought home the Lee Penny, informs me that it is still in existence. She adds that it is to this day in high repute for curing diseases in cattle. Not very long ago it was asked for as far off as Yorkshire for this purpose, and sent there, a deposit of a large sum of money being required for it. Strange to say, the parties having paid this, begged to retain the stone and forfeit the penalty. This was declined, and the stone was returned.
The waters of Loch Monar, a secluded lake near the Strath in the Highlands, claim to have a healing power of a somewhat similar character. Tradition avers that a woman who came from Ross-shire to live at Strathnaver possessed certain holy or charmed pebbles, which, when put into water, imparted to it the power of curing disease. One day, when she was walking out, a man assaulted her, and tried to rob her of the stones, but she escaped from his hands, ran towards the lake, and exclaiming, in Gaelic, “Mo nar shaine,” flung the pebbles into the water; the lake was forthwith endowed with marvellous powers of healing, put forth especially on the first Mondays in February, May, August, and November. During February and November, however, it remains unvisited, probably on account of the severity of the season; but the Rev. D. Mackenzie, minister of Farr, attests that in May and August multitudes of people make pilgrimages to the Loch from Sutherland, Caithness, Ross-shire, and even from Inverness and the Orkneys. The votaries must be on the banks of the Loch at midnight, plunge thrice into the waters, drink a small quantity, and throw a coin into the lake as a tribute to its presiding genius. They sedulously get out of sight of the Loch before sunrise, else they consider that their labour will all have been in vain.
Dr. Mitchell states, in the pamphlet already quoted, that in Lewis the diseases of cattle are attributed to the bite of serpents, and that the suffering animals are made to drink water into which charm-stones are put. He does not describe these stones, but says that he has presented two, recently in use, to the Museum of Antiquities; they have been more resorted to for the diseases of cattle than of men. “Burbeck’s Bone,” however—a tablet of ivory, long preserved in the family of Campbell of Burbeck—was esteemed a sovereign cure for lunacy; when borrowed, a deposit of 100l. was exacted, in order to secure its safe return.
Dr. Mitchell’s allusion to serpents is curious in connexion with the following anecdote, transmitted to me by the late Canon Humble: “An intelligent sensible labourer, a Scotchman, was attacked by an adder while employed in levelling some ground near Pitlochry, in the county of Perth. Severe pain came on, and a terrible swelling, which grew worse and worse, till a wise woman was summoned with her adder’s stone. On her rubbing the place with the stone, the swelling began to subside.” The sufferer himself related the story to Canon Humble, saying also that the stone was produced by a number of adders who are accustomed to meet together and manufacture this antidote to their own venom.
Here we come upon a belief which extends, in part at least, even to Syria. In Kelly’s Syria and the Holy Land, 1844, page 127, we read: “They have a sovereign remedy, which absorbs, as they assert, every particle of venom from the wound. This is a yellowish porous stone, of a sort rarely met with (the very words used by the Scottish labourer of his adder-stone). A fragment of such a stone always commands a high price, but, when the piece has acquired a certain reputation by the number of marvellous cures wrought with it, it becomes worth its weight in gold. Madame Catafugo, the wife of a wealthy merchant, is mistress of one of these stones. It is a small piece of great renown, and cost her 680 piastres, i. e. nearly 7l. sterling.”
In the neighbourhood of Stamfordham, Irish stones are the favourite charms. The Rev. J. F. Bigge informs me that he knows of three, all in high estimation. A servant of Mrs. ——, of Kyloe House, related to him how he was once sent to the house of a neighbouring lady to borrow such a stone. It had been brought from Ireland, and was never permitted to touch English soil. The stone was placed in a basket, carried to a patient with a sore leg, the leg rubbed with it, and the wound healed. People came many miles to be touched with these stones, but they were considered more efficacious in the hands of an Irish person. We learn from Mr. Denham’s Notes that Irish stones were at one time common in the Northumbrian dales, and in high repute as a charm to keep frogs, snakes, and other vermin from entering the possessor’s house. Evidently the blessing bestowed by St. Patrick upon the Emerald Isle was supposed to dwell in its very stones. Mr. Denham describes one of these stones, which belonged to Mr. Thomas Hedley, son to a gentleman of the same name, at Woolaw, in Redesdale. It was of a pale-blue colour, three-and-a-quarter inches in diameter, and three-quarters of an inch thick. It is not perforated, and therein differs from the holy or self-bored stones of the North.
Nor does it seem that the blessing stopped here. It is believed at Chatton, in Northumberland, that, if a native of Ireland draw a ring round a toad or adder, the creature cannot get out and will die there. My informant, the Rev. Hugh Taylor, adds, “My groom mentions, that, when a dog is bitten by an adder, the only remedy is to wash the place with the milk of an Irish cow.”
The late Canon Humble mentioned to me the following mode of cure resorted to by a woman of that place whose young daughter was afflicted by an eruption which broke out all over the body. It is warranted to have been a sovereign remedy. She borrowed a half-sovereign of her neighbour, and after pronouncing the words, “In the name of the Father,” &c. she proceeded to rub the child on the chest with the gold. The eruption went in and the child has never since been afflicted.
A curious aid to the rearing of cattle came lately to the knowledge of Mr. George Walker, a gentleman of the city of Durham. During an excursion of a few miles into the country, he observed a sort of rigging attached to the chimney of a farmhouse well known to him, and asked what it meant. The good wife told him that they had experienced great difficulty that year in rearing their calves; the poor little creatures all died off, so they had taken the leg and thigh of one of the dead calves, and hung it in a chimney by a rope, since which they had not lost another calf.
It is strange to find the custom of lighting “need-fires” on the occasion of epidemics among cattle still lingering among us, but so it is. The Vicar of Stamford ham writes thus respecting it: “When the murrain broke out among the cattle about eighteen years ago, this fire was produced by rubbing two pieces of dry wood together, and was carried from place to place all through this district, as a charm against cattle taking the disease. Bonfires were kindled with it, and the cattle driven into the smoke, where they were kept for some time. Many farmers hereabouts, I am informed, had the need-fire.” And Mr. Denham relates that his father, who died A.D. 1843, in his 79th year, perfectly remembered a great number of persons belonging to the upper and middle classes, from his native parish of Bowes, assembling on the banks of the river Greta to work for need- fire, a murrain among cattle being then prevalent in that part of Yorkshire. The fire was produced by the violent and continuous friction of two pieces of wood; and if cattle passed through the smoke thus raised their cure was looked upon as certain.
The North-country proverb, “to work as if working for need-fire,” shows how prevalent this custom has been in the border counties as in Scotland. That it is of very ancient origin, and widely spread, Mr. Kelly proves. Originally, the mystic fire was originated by the friction of a wooden axle in the nave of a waggon-wheel, all the fires in the adjacent houses having been previously extinguished. Every household furnished its quota of straw, heath, and brushwood for fuel, laying them down altogether in some part of a narrow lane. When the fire thus made was burned down sufficiently, the cattle were all forcibly driven through it, two or three times, in order, beginning with the swine, and ending with the horses, or vice versâ. Then each householder took home an extinguished brand, which, in some districts, was placed in the manger; and, finally, the ashes were scattered to the winds, that their health-giving influence might be spread far and near. It is on record also that a heifer has been sacrificed on this occasion.
In the fire-giving wheel Mr. Kelly sees an emblem of the sun, and in the whole ceremonies of the need-fire the remains of an ancient and solemn religious rite, handed down from early pagan times.
Some of the above narrations make mention of charms uttered over a wounded or diseased part of the body, but I have not been able to learn the words spoken. Two charms have, however, been sent me from the neighbourhood of Dartmoor, in Devonshire, where they are held in high esteem. The first was repeated over the upper nurse in the family of the Rev. George Arden, late Vicar of North Bovey, after a hurt by a fish-bone, in September 1860, and has the credit of curing her:
“When our Lord Jesus Christ was upon earth, He pricked himself with a [here name the cause of the injury], and the blood sprang up to heaven. Yet His flesh did neither canker, mould, rot, nor corrupt; no more shall thine. I put my trust in God. In the name,” &c. Say these words thrice, and the Lord’s Prayer once.
The second runs thus:
TO STOP BLEEDING.
Our Saviour Christ was born in Bethlehem,
Say these words thrice, and the Lord’s Prayer once. It would be interesting to compare these lines with, those used under similar circumstances in the North of England. But there is always a difficulty in drawing from a Northern his little superstitions; he is too reticent. One still in use in the Isle of Man was communicated by Mr. Crombie, of Woodville House. It was given him by a farmer named James Kelly, formerly troubled with bleeding at the nose, which he declared he could now always stop at once by its use. He adds that a belief in such charms, and in the power of the Evil eye, is almost universal in that island.
TO STOP BLEEDING.
Three wise men came from the East,
And Christ drew a cross over the three women that were crossing the waters.
One said, Stop,
In Shetland the following words are used to heal a burn:—
Here come I to cure a burnt sore,
The Sussex charm for the same purpose is different and can only be used with good effect on Sunday evening. Mrs. Latham informs me that a poor person of that county who was severely scalded peremptorily refused to see a doctor or try any remedy till Sunday evening came round. She then sent for an old woman who “bowed her head over the wound, crossed two of her fingers over it, and after repeating some words to herself huffed or breathed quickly on it.” The words were as follows:
There came two angels from the north,
In the same village dwelt an ancient dame who kept a small day-school, and was also a celebrated compounder of ointments, a collector of simples, and charmer of wounds caused by thorns. She boasted of the numbers who came to her with bad wounds begging her “to say her blessing over them, and a power of people had she cured with it in the course of her life.” She had received the charm when a young girl from an old shepherd who lodged with her mother. It ran thus:
Our Saviour Christ was of a virgin born,
She had inherited from her mother a charm for the bite of a viper, and one for the cure of giddiness in cattle, but had lost them in charming horses. The former she much regretted, it had done “such a power of good.” She had tried it once on a lad who had been stung by a viper coiled up in a bird’s nest into which he had put his hand. His arm went on to rage and swell till it was as big round as his body, and a power of doctors came to see him but could do him no good. So she watched her opportunity and went upstairs one day when she knew he was quite alone, and said her blessing over his arm, and he was soon quite hearty again. “And since he has been a man grown,” she exclaimed in a tone of exultation, “hasn’t he been to see me, and didn’t he say you’re the best friend I ever had, for I shouldn’t be here now but for your viper-blessing.”
The following charm for toothache is copied verbatim et literatim from the fly-leaf of a common prayer-book lately belonging to a Sussex labourer, and now in the possession of my informant:
As Peter sat weeping on a marvel stone Christ came by and said unto him, Peter, what ailest thou? Peter answered and said unto him, My Lord and my God, my tooth eaketh. Jesus said unto him, Arise, Peter, and be thou hole, and not the only but all them that carry these lines for my sake shall never have the tooth ake.—Joseph Hylands, his book.
A Bible or prayer-book with this legend written in it is a charm against the toothache in great repute through the south-eastern counties of England and I believe in Ireland.
We may mention here that this sort of charm is much used in Prussia by persons of a higher station in life than those who resort to them in any part of England. A friend informs me that in a family at Berlin, of more than average education and cultivation of mind, she has heard a lady blamed for persisting in consulting the doctor for chronic rheumatism in the arm, instead of having the limb “besprochen.”
In the North of England, at any rate, charms and spells are not all spent upon the sick and wounded. Witness the following dialogue between two servant-girls in the city of Durham, communicated to me by the Rev. Canon Raine. One of them, it seems, peeped out of curiosity into the box of her fellow-servant, and was astonished to find there the end of a tallow-candle stuck through and through with pins. “What’s that, Molly,” said Bessie, “that I see’d i’ thy box?” “Oh,” said Molly, “it’s to bring my sweetheart. Thou see’st, times he’s slow a-coming, and if I stick a candle-end full o’ pins it always fetches him.” A member of the family certifies that John was thus duly fetched from Ferryhill, a distance of six miles, and pretty often too.
It is remarkable that a somewhat similar use of candles and pins prevailed in the remote county of Buckingham at no very distant date. My friend Miss Young has given me the following particulars on the subject, which she learned from her nurse, an old servant still in the family. Buckinghamshire damsels desirous to see their lovers would stick two pins across through the candle they were burning, taking care that the pins passed through the wick. While doing this they recited the following verse:—
It’s not this candle alone I stick,
By the time the candle burned down to the pins and went out, the lover would be certain to present himself.
The nurse declared that she knew three instances in which this spell had been practised, and that successfully, so far as the appearance of the lover was concerned; but only one of the girls was married to the man in question, and her after-life was most unhappy. Of the other two, one lost her sweetheart immediately. He came to her that evening because he could not help himself, but he came in a very ill-humour, declaring that he knew the girl “had been about some devilme’nt or other.” “No tongue,” he said, “could tell what she had made him suffer,” and he never would have another word to say to her from that hour.
It is interesting to compare this history with the following, from the neighbourhood of the Hartz Mountains. In that district girls obtain a glimpse of their future husbands in the following manner. At nightfall a maiden must shut herself up in her sleeping-room, take off all her clothes, and place upon a table, covered with a white cloth, two beakers, the one filled with wine, the other with pure water. She must then repeat the following words:
My dear St. Andrew,
This done, the form of the future husband will appear, and drink from one of the cups. If poor he will sip the water, if rich the wine.
An over-curious maiden once summoned her future husband in this manner. Precisely as the clock struck twelve he appeared, drank from the wine-cup, laid a three-edged dagger on the table and vanished. The girl put the dagger in her trunk. Some years afterwards a man arrived in that place from a distant part of the country, bought property there, saw the girl, and married her. It was the same whose form had appeared to her that night. After a time he chanced to open his wife’s trunk, and there beheld the dagger. At the sight of it he became furious. “Thou, then, art the woman,” he exclaimed, “who, years ago, forced me to come hither from afar in the night, and it was no dream! Die, therefore!” and with these words he thrust the dagger in her heart.
Something like this is named in the Universal Fortune Teller. “Any unmarried woman fasting on Midsummer Eve, and at midnight, spreading a clean cloth with bread, cheese, and ale, and sitting down to the table as if to eat, the street door being open, the man whom she is to marry will enter the room, and bowing drink to her; then filling the glass will place it on the table, bow to her again and go out.”
A variation of this spell extends into Yorkshire, and was thus practised by a young woman at Wakefield, not long ago. She obtained the blade-bone of a shoulder of mutton, and into its thinnest part drove a new penknife; then she went secretly into the garden, and buried knife and bone together, firmly believing that so long as they were in the ground her betrothed would be in a state of uneasiness, which would gradually increase till he would be compelled to visit her.
In this case his powers of endurance were not very great, for he arrived the next day, saying how wretched and miserable he had been ever since yesterday. The girl was thus firmly convinced of the potency of the spell, but at the same time she had been so uncomfortable while practising it, and her conscience pricked her so sharply for the sufferings she had inflicted on her lover, that she determined never to have recourse to it again.
In The Universal Fortune Teller the spell runs thus: “Let any unmarried woman take the blade-bone of a shoulder of lamb, and borrowing a penknife (without saying for what purpose) she must, on going to bed, stick the knife once through the bone every night for nine nights in succession in different places, repeating every night while so doing these words,—
‘Tis not this bone I mean to stick,
Accordingly at the end of the nine days, or shortly after, he will come and ask for something to put to a wound inflicted during the time you were charming him.” It would answer as well to wrap in paper some of the drug called dragon’s blood, and throw it in the fire with these words,—
May he no pleasure or profit see
The “salt spell” of the southern counties is somewhat akin to the foregoing. A pinch of salt must be thrown into the fire on three successive Friday nights while these lines are repeated:
It is not this salt I wish to burn,
On the last night he will surely appear.
The following account of a spell cast for a similar purpose by a former vicar of Hennock, South Devon, was taken down from the lips of Robert Coombes, an old inhabitant of that place: “Passon Harris was a wonderful man; he knew a thing or two more than other people, and could cast a spell or recover stolen property. Passon Harris had a pretty housemaid, and she had a young man; but he deserted her and went off to North Devon. She cried all the week, and on Saturday evening her master found out what was the matter. ‘Never mind, my girl,’ said he, ‘depend upon it he will be glad to come back to you before tomorrow night.’ So Passon Harris laid a spell the next morning. But the young man never came back all day, and good reason too, for when he dressed himself in the morning he put his Common Prayer-book in his pocket ready for church, so the spell could not take effect any way. However at night, when he took off his coat and waistcoat to go to bed, the spell began to work. Off he started just as he was in his shirt-sleeves and ran all night as fast as he could, and when the girl came down in the morning who should she see at the back-door but her young man, panting and breathless.” It may be added that the tomb of “Passon Harris” is still to be seen in Hennock churchyard, and that he died about A.D. 1778.
But this is not all. Local superstition interferes in a yet more delicate matter—the quarrels of husband and wife, as the following narration shows, which was communicated to me by the late Mrs. Wilson, of Durham:—
About the year 1825 there lived at Bothal, in Cumberland, a farmer named Billy Briscoe, who had married a widow, and a wealthy one for that part of the country, since her fortune was 60l. a year. But, unfortunately, she had also a strong will and high temper; and, as his were of the same character, the match did not prove a happy one. The ill-assorted couple were always quarreling. If anything went amiss in the house or the farm, the husband at once threw the blame on his wife, who for her part was never at a loss for an angry retort.
Things had gone on for some time in this wretched way, when in despair the husband applied to a wise woman for a charm to protect him from his wife’s evil eye; and on receipt of a guinea she gave him two pieces of paper, each about three inches square, closely covered with writing, directing that one piece should be sewn inside his waistcoat, and the other fastened within the cupboard door. This was done, and the change that ensued was wonderful. All was peace and goodwill. The cat and dog were transformed into a pair of turtledoves.
But the harmony was, unhappily, of no long duration. After a few months the waistcoat was thoughtlessly popped into the washtub, and the charm disappeared among the suds, while about the same time its counterpart was swept off the cupboard door during a grand house-cleaning. The spell was broken; peace was over, and the home more miserable than ever. The unhappy wife told all this to my informant, who, as a last resource, asked her why she did not go back to her own friends, since she could not make her husband happy. “I’ve thought of that,” she replied, “but my money’s here, and how could I go away and leave other people to eat my meat?”
There is some resemblance between this charm and that which figures in a Yorkshire story communicated to me by Mr. Stott, formerly a resident in the county from which he gleaned so much valuable information. It runs thus: Mr. Y—— and his family lived at B——y. He kept a public-house, had a small farm, and went out sometimes as a “Higgler,” i. e. a vendor of woollen cloth from house to house. On one occasion during the Peninsular war he went out thus with a large quantity of goods but did not return. No tidings respecting him reached his wife, so after a time she sold off everything and went back to her father’s house. Her husband’s mother, however, persuaded her to visit the Wise-man, see whether he was alive or dead, and if alive procure a charm to bring him back. She went, and learnt that her husband was on terra firma and quite well. She then asked for a charm to bring him back. The Wise-man hesitated; he could do it, but did not like to meddle with such things. She pressed him, and at last he consented on payment of 10s. He gave her three very small notes folded in a peculiar manner and sealed. One was to be buried beside a spring on which the sun shone when it rose, another was to be worn near her person, and the third was to be placed behind the lock of the house-door, between the lock and the door. She disposed of the first and the third as directed, the second she sewed in her stays ; but from that day she was most wretched. The thought of having dealings with the devil embittered her waking hours, and at night she was tormented by frightful dreams. At length she could bear it no longer, and rising early one morning before the rest of the family she ripped open her stays, tore out the paper, and threw it into the fire. After this she was more at ease in her mind. A few months later she received a letter sent by her husband to his brother; she answered it, and after another interval he returned back to the great joy of all.
When the good man was settled at home again he asked his wife if she had not been charming him. She was frightened and said “No.” He then told her that soon after leaving home with his cloth he had been seized by a press-gang, carried on board ship, and taken to Brazil. There he had fallen sick and been left behind. On his recovery he had obtained a situation as under-master in a school, and been very comfortable until a violent wish to return home took possession of him. He had no rest till, having saved up money enough for his passage, he took ship and landed at Liverpool. There, however, a change came over him without any assignable cause, and within an hour of his arrival he went on board another ship outward bound. The wife found on inquiry that her husband had landed at Liverpool and sailed from it again at the identical time she threw the spell into the fire, but she took good care never to let him know it.
Through the kindness of J. S. Crompton, Esq. I have received the account of a very curious old Yorkshire spell discovered at his patrimonial estate of Eschott, between Leeds and Bradford, on the left or north bank of the river Aire. Mr. Crompton writes, “My father had a tenant at Eschott, by name John Gill, who died an old man. Upon his death an old cow-house was taken down to be replaced by a new one. Over every cow’s head in a hole was a paper on which was written:
Omni Spiritones laudent Dominum
My brother has the paper now, for only one was perfect. The others had been eaten by mice.
When they were found all the folks said, “Aye, old Gill was always lucky wi’ his kye. He never lost a beast. It mun be a powerfu’ writing.”
I add a charm for the bite of a mad dog, communicated to me by the kindness of Professor Marecco:
To be written on an apple or a piece of fine white bread:
To be swallowed three mornings fasting.
- Natural History, cent. x. 997.
- In 1876 my children were suffering from whooping-cough, at Lew Trenchard, Devon. Our coachman’s wife cut hair off the cross on an ass’s back, and put it in little red silk bags, and begged me to hang these round the necks of the children. I complied with her request, of course, and for six weeks they wore the little bags, to the good woman’s great satisfaction.—S. B. G.
- Compare this with a Devonshire talisman. In the parish of Thrnstleton, North Devon, lives an old lady (Miss Soaper), possessed of a bluish-green stone called the “kenning stone,” which is much resorted to by people troubled with sore eyes. If the eye be rubbed with the stone, the sufferer is cured.—S. B. G.
- Edinburgh: Mill and Co. 1862.
- Black cocks have been extensively used in magical incantations and in sacrifices to the devil. A French receipt for raising the devil runs as follows: Take a black cock under your left arm, and go at midnight to where four cross-roads meet. Then cry three times, “Poule noir!” or “Poule noir à vendre!” or else utter “Robert” nine times; and the devil will appear, take the cock, and leave you a handful of money. The famous Jewish banker, Samuel Bernard, who died in 1789, leaving an enormous property, had a favourite black cock, which was regarded by many as uncanny, and as unpleasantly connected with the amassing of his fortune. The bird died a day or two before his master.
Further, a black cock sings in the Scandinavian Niflheim, or “land of gloom,” and the signal of the dawn of Ragnarok, “the great day of arousing,” is to be the crowing of a gold-coloured cock. Guibert de Nogent writes (De vita sua, l. r. c. 26): “A certain clerk lived in the country of Beauvais; he was a scribe, and I knew him. Once he had a conversation with another clerk, a sorcerer, in the castle of Breteuil, who said to him, ‘If it were worth my while, I would show you how you might daily make money without having to work for it.’ The other having asked him how this could be accomplished, the sorcerer replied, ‘You must make a sacrifice to the citizen of hell, that is, the devil.’ ‘What victim should I have to offer?’ asked the other. ‘A cock,’ replied the sorcerer, ‘but it must be a cock born of an egg laid of a Monday in the month of March. After having roasted the cock at the beginning of night, take it with you, still on the spit, and come with me to the nearest fishpond,’ ” &c.—S. B. G.
- Heat-spots, like crown pieces
- The Legenda Aurea asserts that the cross was made of four kinds of wood: the palm, the cypress, the olive, and the cedar.—S. B. G.
- Mrs. Hemans came across this belief in Denbighshire, and therefore called it a Welsh legend, on which De Quincey (in his essay on Modern Superstition) remarks that it is not simply Welsh but European, or, rather, co-extensive with Christendom. I have met with some verses which, after telling how other trees were passed by in the choice of wood for the cross, describes the hewing down of the aspen and the dragging it from the forest to Calvary:—
On the morrow stood she trembling
At the awful weight she bore,
When the sun in midnight blackness
Darkened on Judea’s shore.
Still when not a breeze is stirring,
When the mist sleeps on the hill,
And all other trees are moveless,
Stands the aspen trembling still.
- Indo-European Folk-Lore, p. 181.
- Vol. ii. p. 59.
- Miscellaneous Remains, p. 274.
- Thorpe’s Mythology, vol. iii. p. 162.
- Compare this with the Devonshire belief that if anyone is bitten by a viper the viper is to be killed, and the fat applied to the wound as an infallible remedy. I remember a cow being bitten by a viper and cured in this manner. And, again, with the Sussex remedy for hydrophobia: “A slice of the liver of the dog that bit you, boiled and eaten.” Again, a relation of the late vicar of Heversham, Westmoreland, informs me that on one occasion, when a beggar had been bitten by a dog at the vicarage, the man came back to the house to ask for some of the animal’s hair to put to the wound.—S. B. G.
- The present incumbent of B——, Devonshire, has the reputation of performing remarkable cures with his hand. He cured a child at Okehampton of a wen in the throat by touch when the doctor had been of no service.—S. B. G.
- From Two Months in the Highlands, by C. R. Weld.
- As to this later description of stone, however, we often come across it in the Folk-Lore of the whole of England. Self-bored stones are considered charms against witchcraft, and they keep away nightmare both from man and beast. They are therefore suspended at the head of the bed as well as in stables. I have heard of this belief in the North of England, and also in Suffolk and in Cornwall.
- I have often observed in the Weald of Sussex dead horses or calves hung tip by the four legs to the horizontal branch of a tree. It is a sufficiently ghastly sight. A magnificent elm in Westmeston, just under the Ditchling Beacon, was constantly loaded with dead animals: one spring I saw two horses and three calves. I never could ascertain the reason of this strange custom, further than that it was thought lucky for the cattle. I have no doubt myself that they were originally intended as a sacrifice to Odin, hanging being the manner in which offerings were made to him. Odin himself on one occasion is said to have hung between heaven and earth. It was customary for the ancient Germanic tribes to hang upon trees the heads of the horses which had been killed in battle, as offerings to the god. When Cæcina visited the scene of Varus’ overthrow (A.D. 15), he saw horses’ heads hanging to the trees in the neighbourhood of the altars, where the Roman tribunes and centurions had been slaughtered.—S. B. G.
- Indo-European Tradition p. 48.
- I obtained the following charm from the neck of a dead man at Hurstpierpoint, and give it in the original spelling:
“When Jesus Christ came upon the Cross for the redemption of mankind, He shook, and His Rood trembled. The Cheaf Preast said unto him, Art thou afraid, or as thou an ague? He said unto them, I am not afraid, neither have I an ague, and whosoever Believeth in these words shall not be troubled with anney Feaver or ague. So be it unto you.
I have found a very similar charm written out, and dated 1708, in an old copy of Gould’s Poems, but I do not know to what county it belongs:
“When Jesus went up to the Cross to be crucified, the Jews asked him, saying, Art Thou afraid, or hast Thou the ague? Jesus answered and said, I am not afraid, neither have I the ague. All those which bear the name of Jesus about them shall not be afraid, nor yet have the ague. Amen, sweet Jesus! Amen, sweet Jehovah! Amen, amen!”
Compare with these the following German charms:
A CHARM FOR EASY DELIVERANCE.
Thus said Christ: I received 102 blows on the mouth from the Jews in the Court, and 30 times was I struck in the garden. I was beaten on head, arm, and beast 40 times, on shoulders and legs 30 times; 30 times was my hair plucked, and I sighed 127 times. My beard was pulled 72 times, and I was scourged with 6666 strokes. A thousand blows were rained on my head with the reed, smiting the thorny crown. Seventy-three times was I spat in the face, and I had in my body 5475 wounds. From my body flowed 30,430 blood drops. All who daily say seven Our Fathers and seven Hail Maries, till they have made up the number of my blood drops, shall be relieved of pain in childbirth.
A CHARM AGAINST STORMS.
Jesus, King of Glory, is come in peace + God is made man + Christ is born of a Virgin + Christ has suffered + Christ has been crucified + Christ has died + Christ arose + Christ ascended + Christ conquers and rules + Christ stands between me and thunder and lightning + He passed through them unhurt + Holy God + Holy strong God + Holy undying God + Have mercy !
A CHARM FOR CATTLE.
Our Lord Jesus Christ went over the land
With His staff in His hand,
The Holy Ghost in His mouth,
In the name, &c.
And the sign of the cross is made nine times over the cattle.—S. B. G.
- On reading this narration my friend the late Canon Humble wrote: “A servant in our family at Durham used to stick pins in the candle in the same manner, only I believe two persons were to stick each a pin, and if both remained in the wick after the candle had burnt below the place in which they were inserted the lovers of both would appear. If a pin dropped out the lover was faithless. If on sticking in the pin “swealing” began in the candle the lover was sure not to come that night. One person might practise this charm alone, but two were preferred. I do not believe the pins were always crossed. They were sometimes placed on opposite sides but not quite in a line.
- Thorpe’s Mythology, vol. iii. p. 144.